Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Opening clip: a heavily-built man sits on the tailgate of blue pickup truck. He’s smiling and unshaven, taking tiny sips from a red and white can of beer so quickly it doesn’t interrupt his speech.
“Well, it’s been difficult, that’s for sure. Never thought them libtards could fight worth a damn, but Lord, they proved us all wrong about that. Digging them out of the sanctuary cities hereabouts took weeks. Can’t say I held with the burnings and suchlike, but I do hold with our founders proclamation that we have to be forthright in heart and deed, even if a few of those deeds sit badly with some folk’s interpretation of the good book.”
A band starts playing somewhere beyond his truck. He glances back, then his attention returns.
“We’re not monsters or fanatics. The Free States of America are about individual rights and freedoms under the auspices of God. Can’t say or be fairer than that.”
Next clip: a thin woman leans against the wide shoulders of a bearded man in a torn T-shirt. She starts, then the sentences go back and forth between them.
“After our warnings were ignored,”
“we discussed online,”
“before the nets went down,”
“and decided to become the haven for those who wanted to evade the lies,”
“and the manipulation.”
“Nobody tells us who lives,
“what goes in our bodies,”
“or our minds.”
“We’re part of the Independent States of America.”
“If you want a chance to live free of the enslaved dystopia the rest of the world has fallen into,”
“come fight alongside us.”
Followed by: an elderly woman gestures to the trees about them.
“When my son married a Lakota woman, we fought. Then he challenged me. I went to their reservation to prove him wrong. Instead I had an epiphany: realised what I was lacking. Never had much time for technology as it was presented, liked how it was used even less. Didn’t take long to find out a lot of folk felt the same way.
“When things started to unravel, we gathered ourselves, chose our ground, and stood for what the spirits wanted. If you hear the call of the wolf, the eagle, or the crow, come find the Tribal Nations of America. Fight with us to save the land.”
Then: a middle-aged man straightens his tie before pointing at the camera, his expression stern.
“You’ve got to understand that in trying to drain the swamp, he made himself a target. That he’s still with us is a sign. The Evangelical States of America will be his legacy. The corporations he permits to trade here are all certified by the Robertson Committee to be abiding by the Lord’s tenets. But we need soldiers for the Staunch Defenders. If you can’t fight, you can donate. We must always stand ready to protect our way of life.”
The screen shows a prairie sunset. A voiceover starts.
“These represent the major extremist factions in what was the USA. There are dozens more. Most are militant, some aggressively so. As I record this, overseas aid has once again been stopped, as having what is deemed to be unacceptable pigmentation, ornamentation, or clothing has caused aid workers to be attacked and, in some cases, killed.
“The people are still united. They still pledge allegiance. But only to those who hold the same views. All others are considered fools or enemies. In many cases, extermination of any who differ is seen as an acceptable solution.”
The sun sets.
The screen goes black.
A minute passes before closing credits appear.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The cargo bay seems deserted. It should be packed. We know someone performed a ‘war action’ here. They overrode emergency reseal functions and warning routines, closed off internal access, then dropped the environment fields. We don’t know why. Also, the venting of the bay was actioned from inside. That’s the detail that bothers me: somebody killed themselves to do this.
“Mikey Four, this is Pattison. We’ve secured all the dumped ships. They’d all been locked in unsealed states nine hours before the bay was vented.”
“This ride has left weird and is headed toward menacing.”
“Too true, partner.”
The lights come on. The place is a typical cargo bay, done in regulation shades of pale blue or grey. Except for the copious amounts of red daubed across the floor and up the walls to about twice human height.
I gesture to the décor.
“Welcome to menacing.”
He turns completely about.
“Pattison, this is Colson One. Please inspect dumped ships for unusual traces.”
“Colson One, this is Pattison. Was about to call. Looks like some of these ships hosted bloodbaths. Savah, our Dadil Huntswoman, tells me the spatter patterns are right for a large predator slaughtering human-sized prey.”
All vessels and stations have Giger’s Alien on their safety displays. Any form of new infestation could do for us all. His creation encourages paranoid proaction.
“Where are the bodies?”
Colson has a point. I don’t want to be the one to answer, but he and I are first recon. It’s our job.
With Savah’s analysis in mind, I set the forensic reconstruction to ‘track’ the massacre from the traces. Four drones flit from my backpack. Now to find something to do while the process completes.
Turning around, I see Colson standing in the centre of the bay. He’s motionless. I jog over to him.
He doesn’t reply. I see his head is back, like he’s looking at the ceiling above. I move round so I can see into the same section.
His whisper is my saving grace. I shake my head and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Yes. It’s not DSHS.”
‘Deep Space Hallucinatory Syndrome’ can happen to any human spacer without warning. There’s no cure except to get, and stay, planetside.
“That’s all of them, isn’t it?”
I set off a Mass Casualty Alert. It lets those who come next prepare, and gives me access to additional routines. Looking up at the tangle of bodies and hull sealant, I wait.
294. All personnel, minus one…
“Last one triggered the venting. Let’s go find them.”
She’s in the dented emergency control room. Barricaded the door, patched herself up, then dragged the needed kit onto the floor rather than trying to stand one-legged..
“Her name was Siobhan O’Malley. There’s a note scrawled on the wall: ‘Never seen the like. Tripeds in body armour. Two clawed arms on the right, giant pincer on the left. Disabled our systems before making entry. The one that got my leg goes with this bay.’”
“Code Red, all units. This is Mikey Four. Check all ingress points for unrecognised traffic. Shoot first.”
The silence lasts for five minutes.
“Mikey Four, this is Pattison. Ventral lock records an unidentified docking nine hours prior to venting. It departed four minutes after we arrived in-system. Residuals indicate it probably exited near L5.”
We entered at L4.
“Relay a Code Red to everything within range: ‘New hostile sentients. Technically advanced, stealthy, very capable, and lethal.’”
Colson adds: “Likely they’ve struck before.”
True. But now we know.
Thank you, Siobhan.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Two guns: one an Earther automatic, the other a Lenkormian beamer.
“Holy Marduk, that’s a Grifone!”
And we have an enthusiast. I grin at the young trooper.
“Only by looks. It’s a custom Perez .557 automatic. I spent some time at his compound when I was stationed in Lima.”
He points to the white steel death on my other hip.
“Lenk or Kor?”
I do like a being who knows their xenohistory.
“Lenk body, Kor chassis. Genuine Lenkormian cell.”
He goes whiter than the weapon we’re discussing.
“A Forever Gun?”
I nod. Any second now…
He starts to bring his rifle up. The Forever Gun flits from its holster to be in my hand by the time I need to think ‘fire’. The beam goes through his right eye and exits through the left parietal.
“Stand down! Your fancy beamers won’t cut cerasteel.”
I turn to face the armoured warrior with Lieutenant’s stripes on the left chest. A man with that many service bars should be better than enthusiasts like the one I just killed. I level the Perez at him and put an armour-piercing round containing depleted uranium pellets floating in liquid Teflon through his stripes. Either load would be sufficient, but the excessive blend seems to really upset the people we need to annoy.
He hits the floor, blood already seeping around the torso plates. I hope they open him in a container. It’ll take ages to clean the smaller bits off a floor.
“I recognise that cannon blast. Have you started, Red?”
My overwatch. As the cliché goes: if you think I’m nasty, just hope I don’t need her to intervene.
“Ran into a gun collector at the gate. He recognised the combo.”
“Didn’t the cannonball go straight through?”
“That was mincing his Lieutenant.”
“Didn’t think you’d waste a shot. Okay: target is in the central compound.”
“That’s three gates and a couple of towers away?”
“Yes. While I would never doubt your abilities, it might be an idea to flush game.”
I’m dangerous, but without my war machine about me, the second fire tower will turn me into prime cuts and carbon. Jogging towards the next gate, I use the Forever Gun’s ridiculous range to drop all three troopers before I get there. Sadly, I have to shoot their Lieutenant in the back as he’s too busy running. Never put a soft officer on critical duty.
“General Ranno! Remember the Twenty-First Keshichan Lancers? I’m Khevtuul Chloe Bastia, and I’m here to end your days!”
Four years ago he led us into an ambush. He used that betrayal to get himself a promotion into enemy ranks, going from Cherbi to General at the cost of the people who trusted him.
“Nicely over-the-top, Red. He’s moving.”
“Away from me?”
“You need confirmation?”
“As a Khevtuul, I reported directly to him. If he’s not running, that’s a body double. Politics and cowardice were his only competencies.”
“He’s exited the central compound, heading away, but slowly.”
“Do I need to crack another gate?”
“Use something splashy.”
I point the Perez at the distant gate house and thumb the integral laser designator. In the car park across the road, an assault drone ruins its camper van disguise by sending something fast with a thermobaric warhead to do my destroying.
As flaming bits of gate and soldiers rain down, I hear a chuckle.
“Konnichi wa, General-kun.”
The sky lights up as Saeko-chan fires the anti-ship beamer she affectionately calls ‘Torchy’.
“He’s done. Spread like smoking geography. Let’s go home.”
“Anytime. I love killing things with you.”
That’s my girl.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“Hey, Pete. What’s the name of this station again?”
“Hush up, Davy. Get back to duty or the captain will murder us.”
“If he does that, he’ll have no-one to pilot or fix the ship.”
“Good argument, but I don’t want to listen to another of his speeches.”
“That’s a better argument.”
“Okay. So: what’s in the box, Davy?”
“Thank you for that. What was in the box?”
“Scan the transit data.”
“There isn’t any.”
“Davy, the logistics computer told us about this anomalous box. Therefore, it was scanned.”
“Could the box be anomalous because it’s here without transit data?”
“Give you that. Okay, describe the box.”
“Can’t you see it?”
“No. The internal cameras are down in some sections.”
“So you can’t see me?”
“The captain can see your biotelemetry. I have nothing.”
“It’s a metal box. Two metres long, one high, one wide. There’s a nine-point locking mechanism in the lid, with an external lever.”
“Who’d open an unidentified shipment?”
“Don’t think that was the problem. See this?”
“No, Davy, I don’t. What is it?”
“There’s a hole in the lid. About a hundred mil in diameter. The metal is curled outward. It’s right next to where the lever is now.”
“You think something punched through the lid and let itself out?”
“How thick is the metal?”
“About ten mil. It’s a laminate. Middle layer must be what prevented scanning of the contents.”
“Not unusual. But you think an unknown something arrived in a box from we don’t know where, got itself loaded into the holding bay, then let itself out and is now roaming the station?”
“Makes more sense than mass hysteria causing everyone to jump into the lifepods and leave.”
“So, after dumping the lifepods to hide its presence, what did it do with the bodies?”
“How many could you fit in an airlock if you stacked them?”
“On this ship? Standard four-suit locks, so I’d guess five across, maybe eight high.”
“Around 40, then. How many lock cycles have there been in the last week?”
“Apart from us, three. That’s odd. All Lock B, and at four-hour intervals. Last one was midnight last night.”
“How many crew should there be?”
“Around a hundred.”
“The math works.”
“Davy, why? Why would some lethal thing be sent here? It makes no sense.”
“Pete, this station is the furthest out. If you wanted to test something, this is the place.”
“To see if the plan to get it in here works. To see how deadly it is.”
“They’d have to monitor it.”
“Not if it went back to report.”
“In a pinnace? The range is tiny. Even if it scavenged the lifepods for boosters.”
A huge vibration shakes the station.
“Pete, what was that?”
“Hang on, Davy.”
“Davy, that was our ship explosively undocking. Passive displays show it’s pushed the station out of stable orbit.”
“We can presume the captain is dead, then.”
“That’s cold. But yes.”
“Is this station really dead?”
“Absolutely. Even the orbit stabilisation systems are useless.”
“Then I’ll start tearing out communications gear and filling the second pinnace. Even if it’s been smashed up inside, we should be able to launch into atmosphere and survive the landing. You grab as much food and water as you can.”
“Don’t forget charge packs, Davy!”
“Good reminder. How long do we have?”
“No idea. Let’s get off this death sentence as soon as possible.”
“See you in pinnace two.”
“Looking forward to it. Well, the not dying bit, anyway.”
“Love you to. Get moving.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The viewing room is hushed as we approach the co-ordinates. Every being not on duty has gathered. For some, it’s a rite of passage. For others, a renewal of faith.
“Exiting shiftspace in three, two, one.”
Conventional space and time welcome us back with their usual indifference. As the spinning greyness streams away like impossible mist, distant stars catch our eyes. Then it becomes clear, and everything else is irrelevant.
You’ve seen the descriptions of Artaxerxes. Might even have seen a blurry image or two. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen one of the captures from the first mission. No matter how you came to be aware of it, nothing can prepare you.
At some point before life appeared on Earth, it had been a habitable planet. Now, it’s a wandering mystery.
We’ve mapped this battered sphere, can show you depictions of what it used to be like, with deep oceans and continents much like Earth was in the first millennium of man’s dominance.
Except for the chains.
Those impossible artefacts, anchored deep within opposite sides of the planet by means we’re still trying to grasp, trail back for nearly twice the planet’s diameter. One side has four links, the other five. The broken links of either side have been lost somewhere on the journey. They certainly aren’t anywhere nearby, so their loss must have happened long ago.
Not as long ago as the event that launched this world upon its lonely travels. Something so vast we struggle to imagine. What was this planet chained to? There are many theories. My favourite is that there were many worlds arranged to form a necklace around a star for reasons we’ll never work out. The one that still makes me laugh is where some gargantuan spaceship carries planets as weapons.
Our finds under the surface of Artaxerxes have only increased the mystery, whilst getting the entire project placed under a veil of secrecy.
The inhabitants of this place looked like humans! The murals we’ve found hint at a society much like nineteenth century Europe, except for a pervasive religion that more closely resembled that of Ancient Egypt. No writings have survived bar the minimal notations etched into rocks in caves far below the surface.
Artaxerxes was cast adrift so long ago that organic traces are gone. Judging by the condition of the surface, it has endured incredible heat at times along its journey. We’re sure that some survived the initial cataclysm. Most of us agree that the etchings in the rock of the deep caves were made by the last of them. Sadly, we’ve found no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone from which to make a translation.
Backtracking the course of this planet indicates an origin further towards the expanding edge of our universe. Some are convinced it’s not of this universe. I’m not one of them. Yet. We simply don’t know. That’s why I’ve lived here for decades and only return to the worlds of the Accord when I have to. Somewhere in this hurtling mystery is the clue we need. One of them must have predicted this would happen: that some other race would find the remains of their home.
“Welcome back, Professor Tessen.”
I nod to the security guard. This year’s intake of students and recruits follow me into the converted battleship that keeps pace with Artaxerxes to serve as our base.
Maybe this is the year we’ll find that clue. I don’t care if it’s not me. I just want someone here to earn their place in history while giving me a lead at last.